The word, imagination, counter-worlds and community building

This post is an extract from an assignment for the Northern Training Institute (of which I’m the director) by Jonathan Skipper who is working with students in Barcelona. Brueggemann is far from being an evangelical, but this is a great statement (especially as Jonathan expounds it) of the power of the word of God and the role of imagination to create an alternative, missional community in a hostile world.

Walter Brueggemann in An Introduction to the Old Testament purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US sees the Torah as a “normative act of imagination that serves to sustain and legitimate a distinct community of gratitude and obedience.” (24) It “provides the materials for the social construction of reality and for socialization of the young into an alternative world where YHWH lives and governs… [It is] an act of faithful imagination that buoyantly and defiantly mediates a counter-world that is a wondrous, demanding alternative to the world immediately and visibly at hand.” (26) In a world that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith, the Pentateuch gives the church deep resources for “maintaining a distinct identity for faith in an alien cultural environment.” (27)

We live in a world of competing narratives and it takes an effort of imagination to see outside of the dominant social constructions of reality. The problem is that the dominant narrative we live in provides us with a twisted version of reality. Thus we need God’s Word to show us how things really are. And we need to work hard and imaginatively to sustain this alternative, true view of reality, for the overwhelming pressure is to conform. The purpose of such imaginative remembering is for the sustaining of communities who live distinctively, who live in God’s reality. Such living, when consistent with the vision, will clash with the modes of living acceptable to the dominant narrative. Thus the pressure to conform is even greater, and that includes the pressure to keep our counter-world vision in a box where it does not seep through into actual life and thus is no threat to the dominant vision.

Much of the Pentateuch is deliberate in creating mechanisms for sustaining such an alternative way of seeing and doing for the purpose of sustaining the people of God in their distinctive lifestyle in the midst of hostile peoples: the festivals, the memorials, the structure of the tabernacle and sacrificial system, the deliberate exhortations to remember and to teach the next generation and so on. Seeing how the Pentateuch is full of such community-sustaining structures helps us to understand that means are important in sustaining us and also shows us that the Word itself (the whole Bible, of course, not just the Pentateuch) is the means par excellence that God uses for doing just that.

Student ministry comprises groups of Christian students coming together to form communities of alternative gospel light in an alien and hostile cultural environment. There are strong ideological forces at work in the secular university, some of them woven into the structure of how things are, and others articulated explicitly in lecture halls and seminar groups, that do not make it at all easy for Christians to live out the gospel in the university context. There is enormous pressure to conform and to keep quiet.

What will sustain and empower such groups of Christian students to live out their calling? What will sustain their alternative, true way of seeing and doing? It is of course God Himself that will sustain them, and He will teach and nourish and train them through His Word. This is in essence an argument for the centrality of the Bible in the life of a christian student group, for it is the means by which God will teach them, rebuke them, correct them, train them in righteousness and thoroughly equip them for every good work.
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8 thoughts on “The word, imagination, counter-worlds and community building

  1. Hmmm. The argument swings on Brueggemann’s redacted view of Torah, and the argument seems to afirm it rather than correct it.

    Are there not more obvious ways to encourage students to soak themselves in the Word?

  2. I’m a conservative evangelical taking a conservative position on the Bible, but I don’t think there’s any problem with saying that Moses (or Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for that matter) edited his material with theological themes and aims in mind. Edited history and historical reliable are not mutually exclusive. (Even the most conservative commentators recognise that someone else wrote the account of the death of Moses.) So I don’t follow Brueggemann’s view of historicity, but I do find his comments on the theological purpose of the Pentateuch helpful and suggestive. It’s actually a common liberal error to assume editorial activity and historical reliability are incompatible and, because there is clear editorial activity, therefore to conclude there is little historical reliability.

  3. Tim,
    Good point and all narrative and biographical authors do the same. A good book on this is Sailhamer’s “Pentateuch as Narrative” in which he demonstrates that Moses was driven by a very definite theological agenda.
    Thanks for the helpful summary.

  4. Hi Tim

    Our group is conducting a “dry baptism” this arvo of our youngest member (8 month old Emily). This is the pitch I am taking with the group – especially in light of the fact that a bunch of non-Xns will be there. We want to reject the notion that “when they are older they can make up their own mind” as if the rest of the culture is value neutral. Will be interesting to see the responses of the non-Xn god-parents

    BTW – like your comment on editorialising having merit

  5. Sure, agree re editing, but I guess I just don’t see the theological purpose of the Pentateuch stated this way in scripture itself.

    That isn’t to say that there are no lessons for a community from the life of the camp of Israel, but that is not the purpose of it.

  6. I’m not sure you can draw so long a bow Owen. Why, for instance, is the tabernacle at the centre of the people, rather than at the front? Surely it’s because God is living in the midst of his people and wants to enact that. God at the centre of his people has huge theological overtones throughout the rest of the Bible, both for Israel’s good and Israel’s danger.

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